10/03/2012 11:30 am ET Updated Dec 03, 2012

Angela Davis and the Culture of Domestic Violence

Late last month I had the opportunity to see the legendary Angela Davis speak at Spelman College in Atlanta and I was surprised by what I learned.

For those unfamiliar, Davis is best known as the woman who became an early and lifelong adversary as well as an unwitting example of the US prison-industrial complex. She is a freedom fighter and black power icon and was the inaugural speaker in Spelman's Ida B. Wells-Barnett Distinguished Lecture Series.

I expected her speech to touch on themes like war, private prisons, racism and the upcoming presidential election, and she did give time to each of those subjects, but what stuck with me most about her speech that night was her discussion of intimate partner violence and particularly violence against women.

October is designated as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The commemoration of the month evolved from a day of unity that was observed in October 1981 by the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The goal was to connect battered women's advocates across the nation who were working to end violence against women and their children.

While most of us glibly condemn domestic violence and violence against women in general, oftentimes there is little thought given to the matter other than to offer hackneyed anachronisms like, "One is too many."

Ms. Davis went further. She believes that living in a violent society is the catalyst for such violence. She spoke about how the killing of young black men and boys like 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and the language used by Rep. Todd Akin who said that in a "legitimate" rape the female body has "ways of shutting [a pregnancy] down," were not isolated incidents, but instead the product of a society that glorifies and embeds violence and degradation in its citizenry. The problem, she said, was not necessarily America or Americans, but the American institutions such as prisons, the police state and the military that create and perpetuate this violence.

While I can't agree with everything she said, Davis did present some very valid points. What I found particularly interesting and simultaneously saddening was her assertion that domestic abuse is part of a larger problem with our culture.

One big part of the problem is that domestic violence is rarely perceived as our problem or an issue that "we" need to deal with. It's thought of as something that "they" do. Unfortunately, the statistics tell a different story.

Nearly one in three American women (31 percent) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives, according to a 1998 study by the Commonwealth Fund. Further, the US Department of Justice estimates that there are between 960,000 and 4 million incidents of violence against a current or former spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend each year.

Generally the discussion about domestic violence begins and ends with what women should do if they're in an abusive relationship - they should leave and get help. But there's a much more nuanced picture to be painted about this issue and it starts with men.

It's not enough to simply tell men that it's wrong. The average man doesn't think it's right to hit a woman; he does so because often he doesn't know any other way. Current research on domestic abuse suggests that for batterers, it's a learned behavior.

Studies have found that nearly one half of abusive men grew up in homes where their father or step father was an abuser. A study from the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress found that "a strong predictor of domestic violence in adulthood is domestic violence in the household in which the person was reared... a child's exposure to their father's abuse of their mother is the strongest risk factor for transmitting domestic violence from one generation to the next."

Other studies have found that most men who abuse women are actually unstable and/or psychopathic. To wit, research suggests that about 80 percent of "both court-referred and self-referred men in domestic violence studies exhibited diagnosable psychopathology, typically personality disorders."

That study, a report by Donald Dutton titled "Patriachcy and Wife Assault: The Ecological Fallacy," goes on to say, "The estimate of personality disorders in the general population would be more in the 15-20 percent range... As violence becomes more severe and chronic in the relationship, the likelihood of psychopathology in these men approaches 100 percent."

In addition to mental illness and upbringing, a lack of understanding how to handle personal struggles is also a factor.

While most experts agree that simply being under stress is not an explanation nor an excuse for domestic violence, it comes into play when men who abuse women don't know how to deal with their stress.

"Our study suggests that violent behavior is a likely response among people with particular methods of evaluating and coping with stress," wrote Kristi Williams, an assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University. Her study found that abusive men were likely to view stressful circumstances as personally threatening and would try to avoid the situation or repress emotional responses. That led them to be abusive.

This comes back to our societal ideal of what makes a man a "real man." It's the misguided notion that a real man is stoic and that anger rather than sadness is an appropriate reaction to trying times and situations. Our ideas about gender promote the notion that it's more acceptable for a man to be constantly seething with rage than to be overcome by even a moment of sadness.

Perhaps the most destructive part of the problem is that no one is proposing ways to stop it from happening. There are programs for men who have been abusive, and programs for women who have been abused, but what about programs for men before they become abusive?

I recently learned of one located in the Atlanta area called Men Stopping Violence. They work with men before they become violent to "dismantle belief systems, social structures and institutional practices that oppress women and children and dehumanize men themselves."

But there are too few organizations like this. This is where the status quo is failing our men and the women they hurt. We need more.